Frank Johnson (1953-2019)

By Joel Zakem: [Reprinted from FB with permission]

This is a post I hoped to never write.

In terms of longevity, Frank Johnson was my oldest friend. I believe that we first encountered each other in 1966 or 67, when we both around 13 or 14. At the time I was looking through a table of used science fiction magazines at the Ohio Bookstore in downtown Cincinnati with my friend Earl Whitson when Frank and his friend, Brad Balfour walked up. The four of us started talking and subsequently became friends. While I’ve since lost touch with Earl and rarely see Brad, Frank and I remained close.

In 1968, the four of us co-edited an atrocious sf fanzine entitled Advocates of the Infinite, which, thankfully, only lasted one issue. In the same year, we attended our first SF convention, the 1968 Midwestcon and in 1969, Frank, Brad and I joined the Cincinnati Fantasy Group (the local SF club, which put on the convention). Frank and I remained members.

In the fanzine world, Frank went on to co-edit, with Brad, the first issue of Conglomeration before going off on his own with Schamoob, which lasted more than 10 issues and where I was a regular contributor. He also provided cartoons to several other fanzines in the 1960’s and 70’s. Frank later revived Schamoob in the music APA “ALPS ,” where we were both members.

As con goers, Frank and I attended 51 straight Midwestcons (1968-2018) and, during every five Midwestcons since our 25th straight, in 1992, we have been hosting an anniversary party. Frank was also a regular attendee of Worldcons and several regionals such as Confusion and Windycon, but he rarely participated in panels or presentations. His 50+ years in fandom probably made him one of the longest tenured African-American SF fans.

Besides fandom, Frank and I shared several other interests, most notably music. While our taste occasionally clashed (we both enjoyed jazz and folk, but Frank tended toward the progressive area of rock while I was more into punk and new wave), I spent many an enjoyable hour in record and CD stores with Frank (and our differences in taste meant that we often would locate items the other wanted). Frank made regular trips to Europe, and he loved browsing the record stores there.

While music was more of a hobby for me, it became a career for Frank, as he has had a long tenure in radio as an announcer and programmer, in genres including album-oriented rock and smooth (or as we sometime called it snooze) jazz. In recent years, he hosted a drive-time classical music show on Cincinnati’s WGUC-FM, a job he truly seemed to enjoy.

Last year, however, Frank was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Like many things in his life, he tended to keep his condition secret from all but his closest friends. Various treatments proved unsuccessful, and the 2018 Windycon (which I regret skipping) became his last con (I offered to drive him to the 2019 Confusion, but he determined that it would have been too much of a strain). 

Though we have lived in different cities for the past 30 or so years, we have remained friends (and Cincinnati and Louisville, our current cities, are only two hours apart). In fact, in early January of this year, I ended up driving him to one of his treatments. At that time, he was noticeably thinner and weaker, but still seemed alert. After the treatment, we returned to the house he shared with Karen, his long-time significant other, where he insisted on playing me certain musical selections on his surround sound system. 

Unfortunately, in the past week, his condition radically worsened, and he ended up confined to bed. I had planned to drive up to see him today (March 20) but, around 9 a.m. on Tuesday, March 19, I received a call from Karen saying that I should probably drive up on that day. I quickly showered, threw some things into the car, and hit the road to Cincinnati.

I arrived at Karen and Frank’s at about 11:30 a.m. and was shocked at the deterioration since the last time I had seen Frank. He probably weighed less than 100 pounds, could not talk, and was completely listless. While I would like to think that he knew that I was there, I cannot be sure. I was still there, with several of Frank’s other friends, in mid-afternoon, when Frank took his last breath. He was 65 years old.

Something kind of wonderful did happen right before Frank passed. A few months back, Frank, accompanied by Karen, made a last visit to the radio station where Frank worked. A long-time Hitchhikers fan, Frank asked, somewhat jokingly, that if he did not make it, could the phrase “So Long and Thanks For All The Fish” be used in any on-air tribute to him. (And WGUC just broadcast a moving tribute to Frank which ended with a recording of Frank saying those exact words.)

A package for Frank had arrived from the radio station earlier in the afternoon of the 19th. When Karen opened it, she discovered a glass fishbowl containing a number of paper fishes, each one with a message from one of Frank’s coworkers on the back. Karen, with a little help from me in deciphering some of the handwriting, read each message to Frank. The last one, read shortly before Frank died, read “The Answer is 42.”

I know that I will never forget Frank, and I also know I will never forget the opportunity to share Frank’s last hours with some amazing people, especially Karen who did so much for and with him. Safe journeys, old friend.

Karen Kelley and Frank Johnson in 2006. Photo by Joel Zakem.

Cincinnati Public Radio News’ post “WGUC Announcer Frank Johnson Loses Battle With Cancer” begins:

WGUC classical music host Frank Johnson lost his battle with cancer Tuesday, March 19. He was 65.

The Cincinnati native, who started his career in 1975 at Dayton’s WTUE-FM, joined WGUC-FM in 1998 on the All Things Considered news shift.

He had hosted afternoon and evening music shifts, most recently 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. He had been off the air since December.

Cincinnati Public Radio will pay tribute to Johnson today by playing some of his classical music favorites during his air shift. He loved Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.”

“The staff and listeners of WGUC and WVXU, as well as the Greater Cincinnati radio and music community – and science fiction fans everywhere – have lost a dear friend,” Cincinnati Public Radio said in an announcement today. “Frank was a true radio professional and aficionado of all types of music, especially jazz, his soul music.” 

And the Cincinnati Public Radio website is hosting a Remembering Frank Johnson page. Here’s the comment left by Denise Johnson —  

Denise Johnson (Frank’s sister)

Although WTUE was his first job after college, Frank’s radio career began while he was still in high school. Junior Achievement had a public affairs program that broadcast from the studios of WCIN. Once bitten he was hooked on mass communications.

An elder neighbor introduced him to shortwave (ham) radio. In order to get a stronger signal, Frank climbed up a telephone pole outside of his bedroom window to connect a tie a wire to the telephone cables.

Frank was an avid comic book consumer and collector. On one occasion, his little sister’s pet gerbil escaped from its cage and nibbled on a prized possession. To impress the importance and value of his collection, he dangled the offending rodent over the toilet as he repeatedly flushed while his sister cried and begged for mercy and his mother stood watch with an arched eyebrow. The gerbil wasn’t flushed and his sister made sure to avoid additional trauma by relocating the pet to an aquarium.

Frank continued to hone his skills as the student newspaper editor at Courter Technical High School and was on the yearbook and “managed” the school’s radio station.

His obsession with science fiction led to a book collection that earned him an award in a contest sponsored by the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County.

His literary pursuits and graphic art skills led his to publish fanzines; the first, Conglomeration – a collaborative effort with other teen sci-fi fans and a solo effort titled Schmoob, published on a hand-cranked mimeograph machine from typewritered stencils. He managed to snag contributions from top-shelf authors like Ray Bradbury — all while still in high school.

While earning his Bachelor’s degree in Speech and Mass Communications at Bowling Green State University, he was the manager of the campus radio station and earned pocket change dj-ing campus dances and parties.

The sum of his combined experiences created a first-call radio announcer, programmer and production manager. Enunciation and a smooth delivery led to a side hustle of voice-over work. He worked in his chosen profession for nearly 50 years.

5 thoughts on “Frank Johnson (1953-2019)

  1. I knew Frank from seeing him at Midwestcons and others – I may very well have met him as his and Joel’s 1968 introduction to fandom. So saddening to hear this news only a day or so hearing about Norm Hollyn.

  2. My partner Juli and I were incredibly saddened to hear of our good friend’s passing today. He was a great connoisseur of culture, music and art, which he happily shared with everyone. It would be understatement to say that all of the members of the CIncinnati Fantasy Group will miss his wit, grace and intellect.

    Ad Astra, Frank…

  3. Frank will be missed so much in the sf/f community. Especially here in Cincinnati, where he was a core member of our local group, liked and appreciated by everyone. Our city will miss him, too. Cincinnatians were familiar with Frank’s voice on their radios, Monday through Friday afternoons, on our local classical music radio station where he was on the air for many years.

    Thinking tonight about his longtime partner, Karen, who cared for him in the final months of his life.

  4. Pingback: NEWS FROM FANDOM: March 24, 2019 - Amazing Stories

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